Paddling the Don

Several years back my Dad Terry asked me to join him for ‘Paddle the Don’, a 10km excursion down Canada’s largest urban watershed, the Don River. He wanted to take his prized ceder canoe, the one I helped him build when I was 15. I was dubious but said yes. Among the many admirers of his canoe on arrival was a paddler without a boat who asked if he might take the bow. Terry told him to be diligent about fending off rocks and debris and, with me in the middle, off we went.

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Within the first two minutes we scraped against a large piece of land fill on the starboard side. Soon after another ripped into the outer canvas on the port. We portaged two little concrete rapids and had a look at the boat. Determining it was still sea-worthy, we set off once again, the current affording us a good clip.

Tucked into a deep ravine, the Don passes through parks and parking lots, under forgotten bridges, along major through-ways and beside apartments, homes and secret beaches. I was admiring the scenery when KA-CHUNK! All three of us catapulted forward as the canoe stopped dead in the water. We had run head first into a huge piece of concrete clearly visible above the surface.

I don’t know if I was shocked more by the sudden impact or how sick I felt knowing it must have done real damage to the boat. The bowsman pushed us off the barrier and the boat regained momentum. Then the worst happened. It started in the bow, a ripping sound that carried back from behind the bowsman towards me. Ceder strip ribs lifted and cracked as the sharp debris underneath cut into the boat. I felt the hull rise underneath my knees and feet and continue behind towards my Dad in the stern.

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We made it to the foot of the Don. Somehow the boat did not take on water but the damage was severe. He was so upset. In great part at the bowsman but the truth was no boat is safe in that river.

Ten years later Terry asked me to help him take the canoe out of storage and to the country to a guy that hand made ceder strips like his. The quote was almost equal to what a boat would cost new but a new boat would not be this one. The one he made with his own hands.

When we picked it up next spring I was taken aback by the bright, fire engine red paint. We had asked for something more subtle but the repairs were excellent. Every broken strip and tack had been meticulously replaced. It looked new.

We took it out for a paddle together a few weeks later. It was tippy as always and I was pretty nervous that Terry would end up in the cold water but he fared really well. We went again a couple months later. He was pretty weak by now but we had a nice, short paddle and went for a swim with life jackets on.

A year ago August we made our last trip, this time with my brother and sister. It was bittersweet as Dad was so happy to be there and at the same time frustrated with not being able to securely hold the paddle. He insisted on a little solo mission close to shore and damned if he didn’t pull it off. After we all ate some sandwiches on the beach and talked about all sorts of things. My brother brought beers. It was great.